The ‘Master of Movement’ has a healthy respect for the ‘internal’ Chinese martial arts
If you follow what’s become known as ‘movement culture’ you’ll be familiar with the name Ido Portal, and his brand of movement-based exercise/philosophy called The Ido Portal Method. His method is a kind of freeform, soft-gymnastics influenced by everything from Yoga and Parkour to martial arts (specifically Capoeira), and it’s become popular in the exercise world thanks to videos that show Ido in amazing physical shape performing the sorts of athletic feats normally associated with comic book superheroes like Deadpool or Spider Man. His movement practice looks like this:
Ido recently moved out of the shadows of movement culture and into the mainstream when he appeared with the then UFC interim lightweight title holder Conor McGregor at the open workouts in Las Vegas, before UFC 194 Aldo vs McGregor. Open workouts are a chance to showcase the skills of a fighter and usually consist of demo-mode displays on the pads, followed by a bit of wrestling and groundwork. As well as some of this, Conor’s open workout featured appearances from Ido, who led Conor through a number of unorthodox arm-swinging, rolling and stick drills that left most of the world’s MMA media baffled. They hadn’t seen anything like it before, and therefore didn’t know what to make of it. Here’s a video of Conor’s open workout, followed by Aldo’s so you can see how different they were:
Ido worked with both Conor McGregor and Gunnar Nelson in the week before the UFC. While Gunnar Nelson went on to lose his match he put up brave resistance against a dominant (and more experienced) Demian Maia for three rounds, and avoided the submission. Conor went on to KO Jose Aldo with one perfectly placed punch and became the undisputed UFC Lightweight champion. In that instant Ido’s name and movement culture went global. The fight went down like this:
There’s more video available of Ido working with Conor and Gunnar in the run-up to the UFC. As you can see, it’s primarily about ‘movement’:
(As an aside, another thing Ido does really well is have fantastic soundtrack songs for his videos. Note: The amazing acoustic cover of The Black Key’s Lonely Boy by Matt Corby is one of my personal favourites 🙂 )
How much of Conor’s victory was down to training with Ido in ‘movement’ is unclear. He’s been a fan of movement culture for a long time, but it should be stressed that Conor would have been through his usual training camp before Ido was brought in for the last week, which is after all the hard work has been done. In the last week a fighter generally just needs to keep loose and work on his weight-cut. This would have fitted in perfectly with Ido’s routine, which relies more on relaxation and keeping moving than on lifting heavy weights.
If you want to know what on earth they’re doing with that stick in the video then a good primer on what Ido’s work is all about is his latest interview on London Real, in which he talks about his training philosophy and working with Conor. He also shows what he’s doing with that stick:
(To watch part 2 you need to sign-up at the London Real website.)
Ido Portal and the Neijia
Another good source of information is the Movement Culture Facebook group. In a recent thread on the group somebody posted a video of an ancient Indian martial art called Kalaripayattu, which is rather grandly titled, “The Origin of all Marital Art”.
The classic story of the origin of Chinese martial arts is of the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma coming to China and on finding the monks in poor physical condition instituting a practice of physical exercise and martial arts, founding the first Shaolin Temple. The ancient fighting style of Kalaripayattu is therefore one possible origin for the Chinese martial arts. In fact, if you look at the 2-man form at 3.08 in the video it looks a lot like a 2-man Northern Shaolin fighting form I used to practice, a version of which is here:
However, all these claims and stories lack evidence. It’s not entirely clear who shared what with whom, and in which direction the information sharing went. Either way, Ido (who has by his own admission researched an incredible amount of martial arts) remains unimpressed with the movement quality he’s seen in Kalaripayattu, especially when compared to the Chinese Neijia (internal family) arts. Here’s his response to the video:
I appreciate his candour, and I agree with him, Kalari may be old, but the ‘movement quality’ shown in the video doesn’t compare to kind of things you can find in Chinese martial arts. It’s especially nice to see his appreciation for the internal arts, which makes me wonder if we’ll see their influence seeping into MMA at some point.
We’re at an exciting juncture in MMA right now. As discussed in a recent Joe Rogan podcast with MMA analyst and commentator Robin Black (see video below), MMA is transitioning from an era where the mantra had become “Boxing, Wrestling and Jiujitsu is the answer to everything” to a world of new possibilities, as exemplified by newer, unorthodox, fighters like Conor McGregor and Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson who have successfully introduced elements from traditional martial arts, like controlling the distance with kicks, that can catch out a seasoned wrestler/boxer who is not used to that sort of movement.
The best example of new meets old is perhaps Stephen Thompson’s most recent win against high-calibre opponent Johnny Hendricks, who he made look surprisingly ordinary by controlling the distance and utilising his kicks, until getting the KO in the first round. Instead of standing ‘in the pocket’ to trade blows as Hendricks would have liked, he moved in and out with ease. You can watch it here:
A one-time title holder himself, Hendricks had previously taken UFC Welterweight Champion Robbie Lawler through two five-round wars of bloody destruction, only just missing out on the win each time, but faced with somebody who wasn’t going to ‘stand and bang’ he looked lost.
It’s this sort of movement skill that’s the crossing-over point of mixed martial arts and movement coaches, and Ido Portal is definitely not the only person integrating the two worlds. Another person to look out for is Erwan Le Curre of Movenat, who has greatly influenced UFC fighter Carlos Condit, as you can see in the following video:
So, the interesting thing to me, as somebody who has a deep involvement in Chinese martial arts, specifically the Neijia, is what could those arts bring to the table for mixed martial arts?
I’d like to be able to say that going towards the refined Neijia movement would be the natural evolution of MMA, as it moved from its slug-fest beginnings to more evolved fighting techniques, however MMA evolution doesn’t work like that. It’s too simplistic to see it as an evolution from thuggish, brutish origins, to the more refined and technical fighters of the modern age. Sure, the early UFCs featured many pugilists who were more brawlers than anything else. And in contrast, today’s modern MMA fighter is a hugely technical martial artist, who needs to be well-rounded in several fighting disciplines, but the beginnings of the UFC were also characterised by victories obtained via a very, very technical martial art that didn’t require huge levels of athleticism, in the form of Brazilian JiuJitsu. So, while the evolution of MMA isn’t the nice, upward directed straight line starting at “brawling” and ending at “technical” we’d like to see, if we were going to make some sort of convincing argument for ‘more technical’ as being the final destination, things definitely are improving in terms of technique in all areas simultaneously – it’s just that we didn’t start from a level playing field for all the different areas that make up the modern fight game.
Kung Fu has plenty that can be added to MMA in terms of techniques, as I blogged about recently. What the Neijia can add specifically is a lot more subtle -it’s more about using your body as one unit to produce power, but as Ido Portal’s interest in the subject has shown, it is also about improving the quality of your movement, and that can’t be a bad thing for any fighter.